A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance Preview

Page 1

Likos Ricci

WoodmereArtMuseum 9201 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19118

| woodmereartmuseum.org

WoodmereArtMuseum ISBN: 978-1-888008-03-6

Patricia Likos Ricci Guest Curator

September 30, 2017–January 21, 2018



Woodmere extends sincere appreciation to the William Penn Foundation for support of the exhibition, its programming, and this catalogue.

Foreword 4 William R. Valerio

Dedication 14 A Grand Vision 18 The House 42 The Wyeth Foundation for American Art as well as Harriet and Larry Weiss provided additional support for this catalogue.

The School 78 The Church 100 The City 134 The State 154 The World 212 Community Postscript 236 Rachel McCay

Additional generous donors include Sally Bellet, Bowman Properties, Ltd., Debbie Brodsky, Russell Harris, MD,

Selected Chronology 238

and Susan and Burn Oberwager.

Rachel McCay

Works in the Exhibition 248 Index 270

Woodmere Art Museum receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

Support provided in part by The Philadelphia Cultural Fund.

FOREWORD The intent of our exhibition, A Grand Vision:

allowing the other three women to pursue and

Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance, is

sustain their careers as illustrators. They became

to frame a new understanding of Violet Oakley’s

famous nationally for their contributions to Collier’s,

accomplishments and give new visibility to the

Ladies’ Home Journal, Everybody’s Magazine,

depth, range, and meaning of her work. In her

Harper’s Magazine, Good Housekeeping, and other

lifetime, Oakley was best known for her murals

anchor publications in the visual world of American

in the Pennsylvania State Capitol. As described

popular journalism.

in these pages, it was news that a woman had received the prestigious governmental commission in Harrisburg. The murals were celebrated and recognized to be spectacular. Nonetheless, they never became part of the canon of American art. It may be because Harrisburg is off the beaten path, or because the over-the-top opulence and decorative intensity of the state capitol offended modernist sensibilities, as did the didactic nature of mural arts. Regardless of the reasons, an important contribution of this exhibition and the scholarship of Dr. Patricia Likos Ricci, our guest curator, is a rich exploration of Oakley’s iconography and her research into the history of art and ideas. Never content to accept the standard models, Oakley tackled big subjects: freedom of religious belief, equality of race and gender, and systems of social organization that would engender world peace.

However, the breadth of Oakley’s career and the other important projects that occupied her are little known. Bringing these to light is another important goal of the exhibition. Oakley would continue to work as an illustrator for choice projects, as the prestige and positive reviews of the Harrisburg commissions elevated her professional stature and broadened the range of her work. She made portraits of friends and neighbors throughout her career, but she also worked for civic institutions, schools, churches, and wealthy patrons, designing emblems, awards, and school programs, as well as monumental stained glass windows, murals, and decorative ensembles. She counted Vassar College, Sarah Lawrence College, and the Italian government as her patrons. So dedicated was she to the idea of international peace that she spent years attending the meetings of the League of Nations and the

In more recent decades, with revisionism in art

United Nations. She made portraits of the delegates

history and attention to women artists who were

from across the globe, many of which appeared in

previously ignored, Oakley has become known for

Philadelphia’s Evening Bulletin. It is thought that she

her work as an illustrator and as a central figure of

was given the mission to use the opportunity of her

the Red Rose Girls. Early in her career, Oakley lived

portrait sittings to advocate for Philadelphia as the

with friends from Howard Pyle’s illustration classes

site for the United Nations.

at Drexel University—Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Henrietta Cozens—in the Red Rose Inn in Villanova. The arrangement was that Cozens maintained the household and gardens,



FIG. 1. Unity, from the mural series The Creation and Preservation of the Union, Senate Chamber, Pennsylvania State Capitol, 1911–20. Photograph by Darryl Moran

It is often written that Oakley is a Renaissance woman. We agree, but will develop the notion further. Our exhibition explores the many ways that Oakley helped define the ideals of the American A GRAND VISION: VIOLET OAKLEY AND THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE


CAT. 1. Dr. Pedro

Leão Veloso (1887–1947), Delegate from Brazil, from the United Nations series, 1946 (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of Robert McLean, 1980)

CAT. 2 Mme. Neymanu, Delegate from Turkey, from the League of Nations series, 1927–28 (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2015)

FIG. 2. Sketch of a Woman after Raphael’s Transfiguration

(1516–20), date unknown (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2015)

FIG. 3. Study for “Christ the Carpenter” Triptych, Philadelphia Naval Base Chapel, c. 1944 (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2015)

of figures for an altarpiece at the Philadelphia Navy Yard represent her determination to strike a balance between realist observation and an

Renaissance, a cultural movement that brought together the fine and the decorative arts and

idealization that elevates the human form as a

under the oversight of a board of leading citizens

we can be sure that she contributed to the core

means to express divinity.

of the immediate community, which included

accomplishments of Emerson’s legacy, encouraging

reached back to the grandeur, humanism, and

Emerson. When the museum’s first curator, John

the acquisition of art by women and sustaining

As much as our thesis is that Oakley’s grand vision

artistic practice of the Italian Renaissance. As seen

Joseph Capolino, took leave to serve in World

focus on representational and narrative artists even

is large and encompassing, we are also interested

in these pages, artists like Michelangelo, Raphael,

War II, Emerson became the Museum’s interim

after their work was no longer fashionable in the

in her impact on the community of Northwest

Botticelli, Mantegna, and Carpaccio were Oakley’s

head, eventually assuming the leadership role.

heyday of modernist abstraction.

Philadelphia and on the trajectory of Woodmere

frequent inspiration. However, she did not embrace

Emerson ran the Museum for almost forty years,

itself in the mid-twentieth century. Oakley’s life

the past out of nostalgia. Rather, she genuinely

retiring in 1978. It was she who interpreted Smith’s

partner was the artist Edith Emerson, who served

believed that the Renaissance ideal of organic

civic vision and defined Woodmere’s mission to

on Woodmere’s first board of trustees, which was

human beauty could be pressed into contemporary

embrace Philadelphia’s own artists. We imagine

formed in 1940. Although the Museum had opened

service. So, for example, Oakley’s portraits of the

that the conversation about the formulation

its doors to the public in 1910, it was after the

League of Nations and United Nations delegates

of Woodmere’s purpose was discussed at the

death of founder Charles Knox Smith’s immediate

seem to glow with the beauty of their unique

Emerson-Oakley dinner table in their home,

family that it changed from a private museum to

physical features. Or, her many exquisite drawings

Cogslea, on Saint George’s Road. Given the strength

a public institution and charitable organization,

of Oakley’s convictions and her strong personality,



Emerson had met Oakley as a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and they began living together in Cogslea in 1918. Decades later, in 1958, Woodmere acquired Emerson’s painting The Calling of Elisha (cat. 2), which had previously hung prominently at Cogslea. When I arrived as Woodmere’s director in 2010, it hung in the Museum’s entrance foyer, and was described



Much of what we know about Oakley and Emerson’s

CAT. 3. The Calling of Elisha, 1920, by Edith Emerson (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 1958)

relationship as a devoted same-sex couple comes from friends and colleagues like Patricia Likos Ricci, our guest curator, and from neighbors who knew them well. For instance, Woodmere’s longtime friend and supporter, the late Mrs. Patricia S. Walsh, lived in Cogslea (her mother, Mrs. Dorothy Valentine Cassard, bought the house when Oakley and Emerson downsized and moved into Lower Cogslea, the studio building) and was close friends with both. That Walsh’s children have elected to underwrite Woodmere’s retrieval and conservation of the final element in Oakley’s Yarnall House, The High Tower, is a beautiful act of generosity that again demonstrates the artist’s enduring community

as having been there “forever.” It was dirty and covered with grime from years of being on view just opposite the front doors. I’m glad to write that we

FIG. 4. Emerson’s Studio at Cogslea, date unknown. Photograph

courtesy of Virginia Baltzell. Photographer unknown

(Woodmere Art Museum Archives)


their “silver anniversary” with a party at Cogslea, marking their twenty-five years as a couple.

have finally had the painting cleaned and restored

In describing Oakley and Emerson’s relationship,

to its gemlike beauty for this exhibition. It derives

we have chosen not to use the term lesbian. It

from Emerson’s design for a stained glass window,

would seem anachronistic, a word that acquired

built for the Keneseth Israel Synagogue in Elkins

new meaning as a declarative affirmation of sexual

Park. The scene is a “calling.” The elder prophet

identity that grew out of the gay rights movement

Elijah meets the younger Elisha, who is plowing

of the late 1960s and 1970s, after Oakley and

his family’s fields with oxen. Elijah recognizes that

Emerson’s roughly forty-three years together,

their destinies are to be intertwined as master and

from 1918 until Oakley’s death in 1961.

protégé. In Emerson’s painting, Elijah raises his

FIG. 5. Edith Emerson, date unknown


legacy. In 1943, Oakley and Emerson celebrated

hand to command the gaze of the younger man at

A photograph that Emerson entrusted to Likos Ricci

right; his red cloak billows, and in the next instant

says it all, but in code. Emerson used the picture

he will use it to wrap the two of them together for

as the basis for a portrait of Oakley (undated, but

eternity. The narrative is a barely veiled allegory

probably from the 1930s), now in Woodmere’s

of the relationship between Emerson and Oakley.

collection. Oakley, then likely in her sixties, sits at

Emerson was student, studio assistant, protégée,

the elegant dining table at Cogslea. The photograph

and devoted caretaker of Oakley herself and of

and the oil painting also include a representation of

her legacy. Often, in staged photographs, Emerson

Emerson, dressed as her alter ego Giovanni, made

serves Oakley, and, when they sometimes held

by Oakley and hanging over their sideboard. An

theatrical costumed banquets, Emerson dressed as

important difference is that in the painting, Oakley

Oakley’s page.

is depicted as a voluptuous young woman, perhaps



CAT. 5. “Il

Convito,” The Banquet: Edith Emerson in Page Costume, Others (from Right) Daniel Buckley, Mary Nixon, and Alex de Tarnowski, Celebrating Completion of Seven Panels for the Senate Chamber, date unknown (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation)

FIG. 6. Violet Oakley at Cogslea, date unknown. Photograph courtesy of Patricia Likos Ricci. Photographer unknown

CAT. 4. Portrait of Violet Oakley, date unknown, by Edith Emerson (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of Jane and Noble Hall, 1998)

even younger than the forty years of age she was

vision engages with community, city, and state and

when she invited Emerson to live with her in 1918.

expands to encompass the nation and the world.

It’s as if, in ensuring that the photograph would be

As a young graduate of Moore College of Art and

preserved, Emerson wanted it to be known that

Design and an aspiring art historian in the 1970s,

in her eyes, Oakley was forever young, forever

Ricci was interested in the history of women artists.

beautiful. In addition, everything in the painting

She introduced herself to Emerson at Woodmere

There is a special connection between

is about doubles: two doors with curtains, two

and asked to interview her about her life with

d’Harnoncourt and Oakley that warrants comment.

candles, two vases of flowers, and two fruit dishes—

Oakley. Emerson invited her to assist with the

Soon after the Oakley exhibition at the Philadelphia

this table and this dining room serve as metaphors

organization of the collection in the Violet Oakley

Museum of Art, d’Harnoncourt was appointed

for a entire home for two women. A subtle detail is

Memorial Foundation, which Emerson founded in

director. I had the privilege of working as a member

the slight tilt of Oakley’s head, an acknowledgment

1962, after Oakley’s death.

of her team many years later, at the end of a

of the love expressed by Emerson across the table in the bright colors and warm tones of this double portrait.

It was while working with Emerson that Ricci was asked to assist Anne d’Harnoncourt and Ann Percy, who were curating an exhibition of Oakley’s work at

We have also learned a great deal from our guest

the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ricci’s essay in the

curator. Woodmere’s exhibition builds on the thesis

museum’s accompanying Bulletin established the

expressed in Ricci’s scholarship that Oakley’s grand

chronology of Oakley’s career and an understanding



of her work that grew directly from her interactions

for the very greatest artists whose legacies she

with Emerson. That Woodmere and its audiences

stewarded. D’Harnoncourt’s great accomplishment

are benefitting from Ricci’s continuing research and

was to break down the barrier between the

scholarship is a great privilege.

museum on the hill in Fairmount and the life of the city of Philadelphia, in many ways creating a depth

legendary tenure that concluded with her untimely

of connection between museum and community that remains unsurpassed. There was a spiritual connection, I must think, between Oakley’s work as an artist and d’Harnoncourt’s work as a museum director, one that was built on a faith that art has the power to touch people’s lives in profound ways.

death in 2008. Back then, before the Executive

Woodmere is grateful to the many institutions who

Offices moved into the museum’s new Perelman

generously lent works of art to the exhibition, and

Building, we were in the main building, and some

to the many private individuals who shared their

of Oakley’s sketches for the Yarnall House murals

great treasures, enabling us to tell the many stories

were on view in our reception area. D’Harnoncourt

that constitute Oakley’s grand vision. Stephen L.

held Oakley at a level of esteem that she reserved

Druggan, Head of School, and all our friends at



are awed by the talents of photographers Rick Echelmeyer and Darryl Moran and videographer Patrick Dolan. The importance of their work can’t be overestimated, because Oakley’s reputation has been held back by the lack of exciting still and moving images. We thank our friends at the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Philip Horn, Executive Director, and Heather Doughty, Deputy Executive Director, for the help and facilitation of our efforts. It is also necessary to mention the late Brian Zahn, Woodmere’s longtime friend, ardent collector, and scholar. This exhibition represents the realization of a dream that he described to me seven years ago. CAT. 6. Composition Study for “Man and Science” (Lunette), for the Charlton Yarnall House, Philadelphia, 1910–11 (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Edith Emerson, 1984)

Finally, so deep are Oakley’s and Emerson’s imprint on the life of the Museum, that Woodmere’s trustees, staff, and volunteers have poured their

Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, embraced the

Walsh supported the retrieval and conservation

love into the exhibition like never before. Usually,

opportunity associated with lending their large,

of The High Tower in honor of their mother, Mrs.

exhibitions are shepherded forward by different

magnificent mural to the exhibition. We offer

Patricia S. Walsh, who was Woodmere’s constant

configurations of our curatorial and education staff,

special thanks to the Pennsylvania Academy of

champion and Violet Oakley’s great friend. We were

the Fine Arts for the loan—and gift—of many

able to develop new programs for schoolchildren

important works of art. City Councilman Alan Domb

in association with this exhibition thanks to the

understood our need to leave no stone unturned

support of Sally Bellet. Bowman Properties, Ltd. are

in our quest to retrieve the final part of Oakley’s

the supporters of the community events that allow

Yarnall House murals; as the current owner of the

us to share the exhibition freely. Susan and Burn

building, he generously gave us access and allowed

Oberwager underwrote our scholarly programs

us to excavate and remove The High Tower from

and Debbie Brodsky gave generously to the

beneath the layers of paint on his walls. We extend

exhibition in general.

special thanks to Russell Harris, MD, for the gift of Oakley’s study for Redemption (cat. 73), in memory of John Casavecchia, who collected Oakley’s work with passion.

The William Penn Foundation has been a meaningful supporter of this exhibition along with two others—Schofield: International Impressionist in 2014 and We Speak: Black Artists in Philadelphia,

Many of Woodmere’s best friends and longtime

1920s–1970s in 2015—significant, ambitious

supporters stepped forward so we could make

endeavors that have propelled the Museum forward

the most of our plans for Grand Vision. As

in numerous ways.

mentioned above, Valentine Walsh and Richard 12


FIG. 7. (Sundial and Roses in Garden outside Cogslea), date

unknown (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: Gift of the Violet Oakley Memorial Foundation)

but this one is a triumph shared by all. Therefore, I must extend my gratitude to Larry Brooks, Ryan Caulfield, Felicia Caviezel, Brian Chepulis, Erin DeCesare, Michael DeGennaro, Megan Gallagher, David Gramm, Natalie Greene, Stephen Kerzner,

For this catalogue, Woodmere has received generous support from Harriet and Larry Weiss and from the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, whose board of trustees takes special interest in projects that disseminate new scholarship in American art.

Sally Larson, Pamela Loos, Rachel McCay, Rick Ortwein, Diane Pastella, Joseph Pompilii, Anne Standish, Hildy Tow, Christina Warhola, Sabina Wister, Anne Wood, Bernadine Young, and Nick Yzzi. Thank you all.

The Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, the Fleisher Art Memorial, the First Presbyterian


Church in Germantown and the Apostolic

The Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and

Nunciature in Washington, DC, gave us access

Chief Executive Officer

to Oakley’s art, murals, and stained glass for the photography in this catalogue. As always, we



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